Tuesday 21 May 2024

Robot Monster









Ro-Man Legion

Robot Monster
USA 1953 Directed by Phil Tucker
3-D Film Archive Blu Ray
70th Anniversary Restoration in 3D


I’ve been wanting to catch up with Robot Monster for many decades now. I mean, who wouldn’t... it’s got an iconic looking monster in the form of a man in a gorilla suit, wearing white gauze on his face, topped off with an old timey diving helmet converted into a space helmet with the addition of big antennae. As luck would have it, there’s been a recent restoration of the film by the 3-D Film Archive on the occasion of it’s 70th anniversary... and it’s in 3D!  

Now, like a lot of people who were sceptical when they were first released, I don’t have a 3D television but, that’s okay, there are two different 3D options on here. Firstly, one for 3D TV owners but, with a quick toggle on the menu (the menu card looks fantastic once toggled, by the way), you can switch it over to anaglyphic 3D and just use the blue and red 3D glasses provided in the package. Luckily, we have had a few of these sets of 3D glasses for a number of years due to unusual novelty items and so I was able to watch this one in 3D with my mum and dad, also similarly tooled up... and let me tell you, when you are watching a film with people who are old enough to have seen it at the cinema, that whole nostalgic, ‘so bad it’s good’ element is not there for them and all they see is a badly made movie.

And it is a bad movie for sure. An almost indescribably, hilariously bad movie but... two things save it. One, the 3D on it looks absolutely, jaw droppingly amazing. I mean, those red and blue glasses really get a lot of depth out of this one... incredible. Secondly... diving helmet space gorilla from the moon! What’s not to like?

The first thing you’ll see on the Blu Ray when you start the film off and running is the director’s short which originally accompanied the film in cinemas and acts as a warm up to the 3D process... called Stardust In Your Eyes. It’s basically just this guy called.. wait for it... Slick Slaven... telling terrible jokes to the audience before he then proceeds to sing a song, over and over again, as impressions of popular movie stars of the day (and how they would have sung it)... so we go through a whole gamut of impressions that I found quite fun but, honestly, the amount of tutting coming from my dad during this sequence rivalled the amount of tutting at the bad writing of the main feature... I thought he was going to start throwing things at the TV at one point. Anyway, if you wish to see Slick Slaven’s timeless impersonations of Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ronald Coleman, Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Larry Parks, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Charles Laughton, they’ve been lovingly restored here.

Then we get to the main feature and no amount of bad special effects can hide the fact that the world the boy whose eyes we see the film through has changed ten minutes or so in to one where only eight people are left alive in the world, due to being attacked by the Ro-Man from the moon and that the whole thing must be ‘just a dream’. And yes, of course it IS just a dream... especially when half the cast get killed off by the Ro-Man, including the lead actor and actress (George Nader and Claudia Barrett). A dream world where the boy’s family are living in the ruins of their house, cloaked behind an impenetrable electrical shield which stops the Ro-Man on Earth from finding them somehow. A family immune to his death rays because of an experimental antibiotic invented by the father. Oh wait, did I say death rays.. no, calcinator rays with their hideous crackling and flashes of negative/positive images strobed on the screen at certain points. And then there’s the Ro-Man’s communication apparatus, which is basically a machine blowing bubbles, lots of bubbles, which float in wonderful 3D out of your television screen. Not to mention some of those wonderful bits of machinery invented by the great Kenneth Strickfadden, rented and used on many movies since the 1930s.

The whole thing is shot on an outside location (in just four days... it shows) and has terrible dialogue and that wonderfully iconic looking Ro-Man, who has even more brilliantly awful dialogue such as “Fool hu-mans!” and “I am ordered to kill you. I must do it with my hands.” And there are also terrible interjections of stock footage of monsters from other films... such as stop motion dinosaurs and a couple of lizards fighting while the studio pretended they were giant size. But, surprisingly, there’s also a strong shot of women’s lib in the form of the main female lead, who is the brains behind the survivors’ attempt to escape the wrath of the robot monster. Yes, the robot monster who is so emotionless, like his people, that he tries to rip her top off and mate with her, brutally knocking her unconscious because he doesn’t have time to properly tie her up when his space leader calls on the radio... even though, in the very next shot, she’s completely tied up. You what now?

The ‘it’s all a dream’ revelation would be hugely annoying if the structure of the film wasn’t so bad that you see it coming from ten minutes in... instead, it’s the cherry on the cake for this enjoyable romp which, despite the protest of my parental units, I found truly entertaining. It even has one of the earliest scores by future film composing legend Elmer Bernstein! This was his sixth feature and he scored it the same year he composed the music for Cat-Women On The Moon, if that tells you anything.

The director, on hearing the negative critical reviews of this film, apparently held a gun up to his head and pulled the trigger, trying to shoot himself. He famously missed, somehow. I guess he had the last laugh though because, on a budget of only $20,000 the film took a huge amount at the box office, over a million dollars, it turns out.

And that’s me more or less done with this 70th Anniversary presentation of Robot Monster, other than to say that there are some great extras, both 3D and 2D (and, yes, also in anaglyphic 3D) to explore which are as much worth the price of the disc as that incredible (or incredibly bad, depending on your point of view) introduction from Slick Slaven. Honestly, for a film which regularly tops, or comes near the top, of lists and polls of worst movies ever made, I found this new Blu Ray presentation to be money well spent and I will now have to find out if 3-D Film Archive have released anymore of these treasures in anaglyphic.

Monday 20 May 2024

Dracula Has Risen From The Grave











Stake Out

Dracula Has Risen
From The Grave

UK 1968
Directed by Freddie Francis
Hammer/Warner Archive
Blu Ray Zone A


Warning: Some spoilers rising from the grave.

Dracula Has Risen From The Grave is the fourth of the Hammer Dracula cycle of films and the first to be directed by someone other than Terence Fisher, after his initial salvo of Dracula (aka Horror Of Dracula, reviewed here), Brides Of Dracula (reviewed here) and Dracula Prince Of Darkness (reviewed here). I relatively recently read a book which stated that director Freddie Francis didn’t like directing the gothic variations of the films and that it certainly showed in his direction. Well, I dunno, maybe I’m a bit of a Philistine but I found this one to be a really good entry in the series and it kept me enthralled all the way through... which is perhaps more than I could say for Brides Of Dracula, to be honest.

From the start we have a credits sequence backed by a strong James Bernard score, cementing the musical language of his previous Dracula entries and also using a phrase which is almost, not quite, the Dies Irae... pretty much a parody of it but I’m sure that’s what the composer must have had in mind here. This is followed by a strong opening where a young, mute cleaner of a church rings the bell, only for no sound to come out and his hands to be stained with blood. An investigation finds a woman with a vampire bite stuffed into the bell, dropping down (following a shoe) at just the right moment to hang dramatically for the camera. Though exactly how Dracula was supposed to have killed her in a church full of crosses is anybody’s guess.

And then we have Rupert Davies playing Monsignor Muller, visiting the village near Castle Dracula a year after his supposed demise under the ice in the previous film, signifying that the opening took place sometime before those events. Now, mark that time scale because he says more than once that it’s been 12 months since Dracula’s death. He goes to find out why the local priest has an empty church with no congregation and it’s because the shadow of Castle Dracula touches the building at certain parts of day so, he and the less than enthusiastic priest take a day’s trek up the mountain (a time considerably longer than it takes both Dracula and the hero of the piece to get there towards the end of the movie) so the Monsignor can ‘exorcise’ the castle. The wimpier priest doesn’t go the whole way and while the Monsignor seals the church with a big cross... the other priest falls on the ice and cracks it open where Dracula is buried (that running water in the moat has magically moved his body somewhat ‘down mountain’ it has to be said) and his blood revives the Count, played once more with considerably more enthusiasm, in this outing, by Christopher Lee. The second priest becomes Dracula’s slave. They steal a coffin and follow the Monsignor cross country to his hometown where Dracula spends the rest of the movie trying to exact his revenge by biting up the Monsignor’s daughter Maria, played by Veronica Carlson and, generally getting in the way of her atheist boyfriend Paul, played by Barry Andrews (who was in Blood On Satan’s Claw, which I reviewed here and who looks somewhat like a long, thin version of Roger Daltrey).

The actors are all very good but it has to be said that all their scenes are stolen from them by the actor and actress playing two supporting characters. We have Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper playing Paul’s dad and he’s just a joy to watch. We also have the amazing Barbara Ewing as the saucy barmaid working for Michael Ripper, where Paul works part-time as a cook while studying to become a doctor. He has a row with the Monsignor because he admits he is an atheist but, of course, by the end of the movie, when he’s battled the forces of darkness, he makes a sign of the cross over Dracula’s body (which has fallen and become impaled on a crucifix), showing that he now believes in God and can marry Maria with the Monsignor’s approval.

It’s nicely shot and there seems to be a lot of very colourful lightning in some of Dracula’s scenes. There also seems to be a lot more cleavage on display in the picture at this point in Hammer’s history, as typified by Barbara Ewing’s costume. Although, why the audience is asked to believe that a very thin leather collar around her neck would actually hide the appalling vampire bite scars she has is beyond me.

Points of interest are... once you think Dracula is finished, after Paul has half heartedly staked him, you learn just how ‘half heartedly’ because he gets up, writhes around a bit and just pulls the stake from himself... which I think is the first time this was done in a Hammer Dracula film. Later on, when he is finally restaked by falling on the upright cross, we get the famous shot of his bleeding from the sides of both eyes, which of course has been parodied and homaged a lot over the years (perhaps the most famous steal from this that springs to mind is with the death of Go Go Yubari in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Part One).

One big criticism I have of this is the continuity. As I revisit these Hammer Dracula films I realise they pay the same care and attention that Universal must have taken with their early Mummy franchise. That is to say, absolutely none at all. The previous film was set in 1895 and, we know from the words of the Monsignor that it’s been a year since Dracula’s demise in the ice. And yet, when Dracula and his new slave priest steal a coffin, the date on it reads 1885 - 1905 so, yeah, a complete contradiction, it has to be said. Also, the close ups of Christopher Lee’s eyes in this aren’t consistent from scene to scene. Sometimes the whites are stained blood red, for the earlier scenes but, by the end the whites of his eyes are very clean and clearly visible... so that’s another problem, I feel.

However, these quibbles aside... and I’ll leave it up to the reader to evaluate whether they are just minor quibbles or franchise shaking errors... I have to say I had a really good time with Dracula Has Risen From The Grave and would say it’s one of the better films in a franchise which, I think it’s fair to say, has its ups and downs. Definitely recommended to fans of the genre and company and certainly one of my favourite performances by Sir Chris Lee in the role. Looking forward to seeing the next one in the series again soon.

Sunday 19 May 2024

Doctor Who - Boom








Sunday Mundy

Doctor Who - Boom
Airdate: 18th May 2024
BBC 1


Warning: Some spoilers here sweeties.

Yay! Finally... the new series of Doctor Who has a pretty good episode... Boom... with a hidden surprise to it too, it has to be said. And, blimey! It’s written by Steven Moffat. He was a great Doctor Who writer during the Russel T. Davies era of Doctor Who but when he took over as show runner on Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi’s tenures, well it would be safe to say his writing went rapidly downhill. Now though, he provides a pretty good story  for the new show and, well, I guess Russel T must be the best editor for this writer, is what I’m thinking.

Okay so, The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and his new companion Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) land slap bang in the middle of a war. I think the army, who are once again a religious army, with serving ministers and bishops etc instead of modern ranking, must mean it’s the same lot as in Moffat’s second Weeping Angels story for Matt Smith’s first season. Here there is no real twist as the fact that the army is fighting no enemy and are being kept fighting and dying because of capitalism of the war machinery merchants (and the soldiers’ own gullibility) is something that is telegraphed from very early on, I thought... or at least just very obvious.

So we have mechanical ambulances killing their own soldiers in the field because it’s not financially viable to give them a few weeks to recover from their injuries and, right from the get go, The Doctor steps on a ‘smart’ landmine and stays there for most of the episode while Ruby, who is pretty much shot dead under accidental circumstances about half way through the episode, tries to figure out, with the help of a few religiously impaired military types, a way to stop The Doctor from both blowing up and, because of his timelord anatomy, taking out pretty much half the planet if he shifts his weight or blood pressure one notch more.

But there’s lot’s of things going on here for what must have been a relatively cheap episode to shoot (it’s mostly set in that one location, which I suspect is one of the new backdrop screen thingies which Disney used on The Mandalorian and which seems to be rolling out through the entertainment industry). Including two surprise actors in this one.

Well, okay, actually the first one is no real surprise... I’ve been expecting Susan Twist to appear in every episode this year, as a different character per episode and, in this one she’s the personality of the ambulances. If the final twist of this year’s show isn’t to do with The Doctor’s granddaughter Susan, I’ll be surprised (although I was fully expecting her to make an appearance about six years ago and she didn’t show then).

As for the second guest appearance... well I would have been more worried about whether Ruby Sunday was going to come back from certain death or not had I realised that Mundy Flynn was being played by Varada Sethu. Who is back as Mundy next year, I believe (or maybe this Christmas?), as a new regular companion for The Doctor (alongside Ruby, I think... I suspect the marketing machine is being pretty deceptive with the facts at the moment). I’m somewhat relieved, though, because I really liked the character here and so I’m glad she’s back at some point.

Okay, so to be fair, the supposed ‘twists’ were all forseeable... although, did anyone catch Ruby’s age when the ambulance analysed her (is she really many thousands of years old or is that just because she’s maybe that far in the future?)... but it was all done with a certain panache and I even found myself warming to Ncuti in this one (thank goodness) so, I guess the darker ones fit him better, perhaps? Or maybe just me.

Once again we have the return of the ‘Ruby snow’ through one sequence. Which is another part of the ongoing mystery of Ruby Sunday and I’m all for that underlying arc (again, something to do with either Susan Foreman or Susan Twist, perhaps?). Time will tell and, not long to wait I guess, since it’s a ridiculously short season this year... well, unless they make us wait until Christmas or beyond, I suppose.

And I’ve not much more to say about Boom, to be honest except, next week’s ‘mostly Doctorless’ (if the publicity is to believed) episode is one I’ve been looking forward to for a bit and it looks to be giving us more intriguing flashbacks to the mysteries of Ruby’s past, for sure (the ambulance in this episode was completely unable to find her next of kin when it analysed her, of course). I just hope all the other episodes of this season carry on with this kind of quality going forward (if not even better). Liked this one a lot.

Tuesday 14 May 2024

Britain's Toy Car Wars










Hotter Wheels

Britain's Toy Car Wars -
The War of Wheels Between
Dinky, Corgi and Matchbox

by Giles Chapman
The History Press
ISBN 9780750997133


I bought this book, Britain's Toy Car Wars - The War of Wheels Between Dinky, Corgi and Matchbox, for a friend for his birthday last year and, when it arrived and I hid the bright, shiny covers within, probably equally garish coloured wrapping paper, I realised that this tome was also something I should read myself. And so another friend furnished me with one as a birthday present this year and, I have to say that it’s a remarkable book which I thoroughly enjoyed. My one caveat being the penultimate chapter which I’ll get onto in a minute.

So this traces the history of the three car toy giants Dinky, Corgi and Matchbox from the origins of Dinky in the early 1930s to their unfortunate demise and selling off to foreign companies in the very early 1980s. So lots of things I never knew in here are revealed to me for the first time... starting with the birth of Frank Hornby on 18th May 1863. This gentleman was responsible first for inventing the once much loved childrens’ (and adults’) construction toy Meccano, before further extending his arm into Hornby train sets, another iconic and long running toy. And then, just two years before his death in 1936, he started up die cast giant Dinky Toys. That’s a pretty good CV but the book also tells the history of both Corgi and, of course, Lesney’s Matchbox company... started by two school friends from George Spicer school in Enfield (where I used to go to school) in the 1920s, who remained friends after serving in the Second World War in their respective fields, eventually starting up Matchbox in the basement of a derelict pub.

This book is basically a rise and fall type affair, highlighting the various manufacturers’ rival schemes and the inventive features they put on their cars (both in terms of things like opening doors, more stable and useful wheels and also things like advertising livery put on as decals etc) plus their race to get new cars licensed and approved for sale to the public.

This invaluable treasure reveals such interesting points as the early materials suffering from metal fatigue due to impurities created by things like factory workers throwing their shiny cigarette wrappers into the molten metal, how the die cast factories were switched to making ‘grim tools of war’ and how the three companies fared against each other in various deals and situation, straight from the mouths of people who used to work for the big three companies. Not to mention how they tried to see off new rivals and imitators like the popular American company Hot Wheels and the long struggles which found them, in the words of the title of chapter 11, ‘Fighting Back Against Star Wars and Teenage Indifference’.

Surprisingly absent for the majority of the book are the various properties licensed from TV and movies... which apparently started, unbranded, when Lesney made a much loved and popular die-cast puppet of Muffin The Mule. That is, until a special chapter, the one I mentioned earlier, about such things. And, for my money, this exciting aspect of the cars is not given nearly as much detail or coverage as I would have liked. The first die cast car licensed from TV was apparently made by a company called Budgie, based on Gerry Anderson’s Supercar. It was unsuccessful. But then, Corgi renewed one of their cars with a figure of The Saint and a decal of the stickman logo, which sold them a lot more units than just the normal version. They eventually figured things out and licensed their famous Aston Martin DB5 with the special features to belatedly tie in to the popular Bond movie Goldfinger and, even with 36 trucks waiting to take the Bond toys to the shops, couldn’t keep up with demand of the millions of units they sold in such a short time as they launched. A sales arc unmatched until their Batmobile from the Adam West Batman TV show the following year outsold even that.

But having this chapter after the self explanatory chapter entitled ‘Sad Endings as Britain’s Little Wheels Come Off’ seems a bit of an add on, to be honest... I’d rather it was all included in the running history of the companies but, hey, it’s a small criticism of a great book.

The writer, who is obviously a collector, trader and reseller of the toys himself, finishes this handsome tome with a round up of his own take on collecting these things and gives some facts and figures about how much things sell for today. So if you’re wondering what to look out for as an investment, there’s some interesting stuff to be gleaned from this final chapter.

And that’s me done with Britain's Toy Car Wars - The War of Wheels Between Dinky, Corgi and Matchbox... a true gem of a book and worth more than it’s weight in red hot, molten metal poured into a steel mould. Definitely a welcome and valuable addition to the book shelf, for sure. 

Monday 13 May 2024

Kingdom Of The Planet Of The Apes






My Kingdom
For An Ape


Kingdom Of The
Planet Of The Apes

Directed by Wes Ball
USA 2024
20th Century Fox
UK Theatrical Print


Well I certainly wasn’t expecting Kingdom Of The Planet Of The Apes to be any good. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the previous trilogy and pretty much most of the original movies (I even liked the Tim Burton version to some extent) but after War Of The Planet Of The Apes (reviewed here) I couldn’t see where else they had left to go with it. Turns out I was wrong though... they did have a bunch of ideas worth exploring and I thought the new film was absolutely fabulous. Not sure why the critics are grumbling that it’s too slow, to be honest.

This one is set ‘many generations’ after the previous film, except for a brief prologue where you see Caeser’s funeral... about 300 years later, in fact. The hero of this one is a young, teenage ape named Noa who, although he’s played by Owen Teague rather than Andy Sirkis this time around, does bear a striking resemblance to the lead ape of the last three movies. I think it’s the director’s visual shorthand to say that this new legacy hero is part of the same bloodline, without having to tackle that issue in this film (although, I suspect possibly in a future film it may come to light?).

In this one, Noa’s clan are all falconers and the film starts off with Noa and his two friends on an expedition to climb and steal three eagle eggs so they can attend the village bonding ritual the next day. After an accidental intervention by a seemingly bright human, played by Freya Allan and initially named Nova (after the human female in the original 1968 movie, reviewed here), Noa has to leave the village at night to try and get another one, or miss out for a year. But then he discovers a group of masked apes who are from another, much more aggressive clan, headed up by an ape called Proxima Caeser.

These apes slaughter some of the villagers, kill his father, enslave the rest of the villagers (taking them back to Caeser’s own encampment) and then leave Noa for dead. When he awakes the next morning, he clearly has a mission to set his fellow clan members free so, for a while, the movie becomes a road movie with him, a knowledgable orangutan he finds on the way and, eventually, Nova... who turns out to really be called Mae.

Then things really start to happen and when they finally arrive at the ‘kingdom’ of Proxima Caeser, it’s clear he has a more sinister motive for his actions and is much more aware of what the humans were on the planet some 300 years or so before. He even has his own talking human, played by William H. Macy. But that’s as much as I want to give away here because, it’s definitely worth a look and has an ending that sets up the next two films. Although, while some critics don’t see it as a stand alone film at all, I’d disagree... the ultimate set up for the next one is really just established properly right at the end of the picture, in a series of epilogue sequences. I think it works just fine as a stand alone movie, for sure. But, yeah, I hope it does well because, I would like to see where they take the next chapter in the saga, after what happens at the end here. I can’t help but think that Mae will end up being the natural antagonist of the apes by the time of the third movie down the line.

And it’s wonderfully put together, looks nice, is well acted and has remarkable special effects again. I never find myself questioning the reality of the apes in these later films, for sure. And there are also a heck of a lot of nods to the original 1968 movie in this. And that also goes for the music too. While composer John Paesano starts the film off in a very similar musical landscape as Michael Giacchino’s score for the previous movie, as the visual echoes of the 1968 movie start to stack up, the composer goes into the same territory as Jerry Goldsmith, bringing his orchestrations and snatches of his compositions when the crucified ‘scarecrows’ are seen for instance. Or in a very similar scene to the hunt in the 1968 classic, actually having a do over of Goldsmith’s famous accompanying action cue. I don’t know if this was the original intention though because, well, I did also detect a bit of ‘temp trackitus’ in the film... because when Noa first enter’s Proxima Caeser’s kingdom, the music seems to exactly replicate a very specific part of Goldsmith’s score for The Mummy too so... not sure why that happened unless it was part of the musical temp track, I suspect.

However, it certainly doesn’t hurt the movie and I would love to listen to this score away from the movie.  A shame then that Disney don’t seem to have issued it on a proper CD, once again giving us a first film in a franchise now owned by Disney to be the first in that franchise not to have an actual CD score release. It’s such a shame that this isn’t available on a proper format, for sure.

That being said, I think Kingdom Of The Planet Of The Apes is a solidly put together film which, asides from the echoes and retreads, does have some nice ideas and which I think lovers of the franchise will want to jump in and explore alongside with the director and writers. I’ll definitely be revisiting this one again when it comes out on Blu Ray.

 

Planet Of The Apes at NUTS4R2

Planet Of The Apes TV Show (live action) - to be reviewed
Time Of The Apes - to be reviewed

 

Sunday 12 May 2024

Doctor Who - Space Babies and The Devil's Chord








Baby’s In Black

Doctor Who
Space Babies

and The Devil's Chord
Airdate: 11th May 2024
BBC 1


Okay so, that wasn’t terrible and... it wasn’t great either. 

The new series of Doctor Who starring Ncuti Gatwa as the ‘fifteenth’ incarnation of everyone’s favourite timelord and Millie Gibson as his new TARDIS companion Ruby Sunday gets underway with, not one but the first two episodes of... I refuse to call it Season 1 just because Disney says so, the same as I refused to call the Christopher Eccleston debut Season 1 when the show returned in 2005... let’s just call it the new series, right?

So, anyway, much as I loved most of Russell T. Davies’ run on the Eccleston and Tennant seasons, I have to say that after last year’s four episodes, I’ve lost a lot of confidence in him and, yeah, I found these two new ones a bit of a mixed bag too. Sometimes verging on brilliance but somehow also giving me a lot of miss to neutralise the hit factor.

The first story, Space Babies, where the Doctor and Millie land on a mostly abandoned but still running baby farm on a space station was actually quite intriguing and, when the lone carer of the children is pretending to be a computer and having her words ‘filtered’ by the nanny persona, the writing is quite clever and witty. But I did feel the whole thing kinda died and was let down by the last fifteen minutes or so. I had to explain to somebody who was watching with me what the ending was because it wasn’t too clear for him and I explained the babies were headed for a planet with a name half taken from a character in The Quatermass Experiment (that would be Victor Caroon).

There were, however, some nice references to the past and some nice touches in reference to the ongoing mystery of Ruby Sunday’s origins and how, after the plot points raised by the ‘timeless child’ story arc at the heart of Jodie Whitaker’s incarnation of The Doctor, there are certain parallels between Ruby and the timelord. The moment where the memory of snow on the day The Doctor sees Ruby being left in a basket by someone in her past leaks into the current adventure and manifests itself in the space station, Tarkovsky-like, was a pretty nice moment. So, yeah, not all bad but, like I said, a terrible wrap up.

Hmm... moving onto The Devil’s Chord then, where the two travellers in time and space go to see The Beatles record their first album (and Cilla Black too) and things aren’t quite the 1963 they were expecting... was also an interesting set up. Although it was pretty noticeable from the outset that neither the BBC or even Disney had stumped up any cash to buy the rights to any of The Beatles songs. I mean... really? The one lone chord from the famous song A Day In The Life they used maybe doesn’t incur a copyright fee, is my guess. However, the story brought out a nice reference when The Doctor informs Ruby that both he and his granddaughter are currently living in another part of London in that time, recalling the first ever episode of the show in 1963 (although he doesn’t mention that he is also, simultaneously there in yet another part of London, if memory serves, in his Sylvester McCoy incarnation).

But the new villain who manifests to The Doctor with a ‘giggle’, recalling The Giggle episode from last year (reviewed by me here), is really over the top and overly campy and, honestly, just not much fun, it seemed to me. And the story was more than a little contradictory in terms of the state of music in the various time zones... why have pop artists recording songs at all if there’s no love of music in the world? Oh, and The Beatles looked nothing like them (I was somehow less confused between them by others in the room) but, I thought the young George Martin looked much more authentic.

But, did anyone notice there was snow again in this episode... and some Christmas. Guess this year’s Christmas special should provide some answers to the mystery of Ruby Sunday then, I reckon.

Also, was I right, despite what the IMDB says, in thinking that actress Susan Twist played different characters in both these episodes, just like she did in last year’s stories? Hmm... there’s always a twist in the end, right? Maybe it will be a twist featuring Susan, The Doctor’s granddaughter, who we last saw in the show in 1964? Methinks Russel T is playing games with the audience again, casting an actress with that name in recurring roles.

Anyway, there was a brilliant metatextual one liner about non-diegetic music in this episode which truly was a touch of brilliance, as was the diegetic piano tune from the pre-credits sequence morphing into the full bodied non-diegetic theme for the titles and then further morphing back into diegetic music at the start of the very next scene. Good stuff.

And talking of the scoring... Murray Gold is definitely back and the music feels somehow a lot better than it has in ages, it has to be said (I believe he also featured in the episode as himself but I didn’t spot him... wasn’t looking out for him, to be honest). But, overall, I have to say that the episode just felt a bit meh, brilliance aside. It didn’t grab me the way I’d hoped but, I do still live in hope that the series will get better, for sure.

Now then, one last thing. Millie Jackson is absolutely incredible and I already love her character and the way she performs it. Ncuti Gatwa... still not sure. Still seems to be way too touchy feely for me and somehow... dunno, can’t quite put my finger on it but, it’s early days and I’m not giving up on him just yet. Don’t quite like the way he’s playing him but he’s still shaping the character, I guess. Not to mention I’m still trying to get used to him... so there’s that.

Time, or the man made illusion of duration that it represents as a metaphorical abstract concept, will tell, I guess. I’ll definitely still be tuning in for next week’s episode, which sees former show runner Steven Moffat returning to writing duties. So we’ll see how that goes soon enough.

Tuesday 7 May 2024

Bodies













Four Body Problem

Bodies
8 Episodes
Airdate: 19th October 2023


Warning: Some spoilers attacking you from different parts of history.

Well now, Bodies has an interesting premise, which gripped me straight away... so I should have realised it was based on a comic book (by Si Spencer and not a graphic novel as the opening credits to each episode try to make out) from the DC/Vertigo imprint, almost a decade ago. Now, I haven’t read that original comic yet (don’t worry, it’s now on my hit list) so I can’t tell you if this closely follows the comic book although, it’s such a high level concept that, I suspect it’s not far off... some of the characters may have been tweaked for the show, is my guess.

Okay, so here’s the set up. Four detectives, Alfred Hillinghill (played by Kyle Soller), Charles Whiteman  (played by Jacob Fortune Lloyd... who recently played Buckingham in the French Musketeers movies), Shaharah Hasan (played by Amaka Okafor) and Iris Maplewood (played by Shira Haas) find a dead body in Longharvest Lane in London. The body is naked, has the left eyeball shot out (although there’s no trace of a bullet inside the head when the autopsy is performed) and has a strange kind of symbol, scorched/tattooed onto the wrist.

So far so good but... here goes... Hillinghill lives in the 1890s, Whiteman is living in the 1940s (during The Blitz), Shaharah is living in 2023 (contemporary to when this series was released) and Maplewood lives in the 2050s. Oh... and it’s exactly the same body each one finds, in exactly the same condition... although, when Maplewood is introduced to us at the end of the first episode, the body is still just about alive. And so this starts off as a police procedural of sorts, as we follow each detective simultaneously and, as the ultimately time twisting investigation continues (well, that’s half of it but... four versions of the body, remember? And, no, it’s not clones... it is the same person.), the two characters in 2023 and the 2050s slowly realise that this is not the first time this body has been discovered in Longharvest Lane. Both start to look for clues in the past.

And to say much more really would be even more spoilerish so I’ll refrain and say... like a lot of modern TV shows, it’s not the style of the show or, in this case, the remarkable acting performances of all and sundry that keep you watching... it’s the story which gets its hooks under the skin and pulls you into things.

There’s some nice world building going on too, especially in the 2050s... for example, Maplewood shouldn’t be able to walk but she has a rechargeable device which she plugs into her spine to allow her to walk (and run when required) normally. There’s are also a few surprise betrayals and much manipulation involved as we discover that each of the detectives, from their respective time zones, are being manipulated by a conspiracy group that knows exactly what is going on. And yes, the lack of bullet in the brain of the victim when various autopsies are performed on it from their separate time zones, is explained when you see the eye injury happen... in an absolutely stunning slow motion shot of an eyeball exploding everywhere, as the bullet travels through it... which is the most spectacular ocular injury sequence I’ve seen since Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel released Un Chien Andalou onto an unsuspecting public.

The final solution to the conspiracy and the time manipulation uncovered by this four body problem is also pretty interesting... with a final parting shot of a temporally displaced character and a building decorated with a certain set of initials turning up in the wrong year, for sure... something to haunt the viewer at the end (it’s also a possible continuation point if anyone wanted to make a sequel, I would guess but, I can’t see that happening). There are also some nice visual metaphors and echoes from time to time (literally, from time to time) which make the series worth watching too.

And I think that’s all I want to say about this intriguing series called Bodies. Definitely worth a watch, I would say and, I wish this one was released on a proper Blu Ray edition so I could show it to people instead of letting it have its fifteen minutes of fame and then wallowing in obscurity for the rest of time. But that’s modern studio thinking for you... the same kind of thinking that is killing the art of the moving image, it seems to me.

Monday 6 May 2024

The Fall Guy










Blunt Stunt Hunt

The Fall Guy
Directed by David Leitch
USA/Australia/Canada 2024
Universal
UK Theatrical Print


Warning: Some minor spoilers falling from tall buildings.

The Fall Guy is a new movie reboot of an old TV series, which ran for five seasons from the early to mid-1980s, being Lee Majors’ big role after The Six Million Dollar Man got cancelled. And I have to be honest, I nearly passed on this one because, well, I never saw even one episode of the original show, so, I honestly can’t tell you how this new version measures up in comparison to the old and I certainly won’t be able to identify any of the little nods to the show which have undoubtedly been hidden away in this big screen version. Other little nods to certain things, sure but, not the original template show.

However, the trailer looked great and it features two of my favourite ‘movie stars’ in the lead roles, playing versions of characters from that original show... so we have the great Emily Blunt playing Jody Moreno and the all around likeable personality Ryan Gosling as Colt Seavers (the original Lee Majors role).

For those unfamiliar with the term ‘fall guy’, it’s an industry nickname for a stuntman, the unsung hero of many an action movie (and more) since the dawn of movie making. This movie version of the property differs, I suspect, from the original by making this movie a romantic comedy drama, with all the stunts and action you’d expect from a film with that kind of title. After breaking his back when a stunt goes wrong, Colt disappears for a year and hides out from everyone, including camera gal Jody who was the love of his life (and vice versa). Due to his completely disappearing, the two are somewhat estranged but he’s conned into returning when the producer of a new film (played brilliantly by Hannah Waddingham), an action movie which is actually the directorial debut of Jody, says that Jody wants him to do the stunts for her new film. A little white lie, seemingly to get the romance back on track but, actually, for other reasons which, I guess most of the audience will see coming about half way through the film.

However, the leading man of the film has gone missing and the producer tasks Colt with tracking him down so he can finish the movie. Which is when the film becomes an action comedy/romantic comedy cross-breed thriller, as Colt tries to find out what’s going on in order to save Jody’s directorial debut.

And it’s a nice enough film, for sure... I think Blunt and Gosling have a lot of chemistry going for them and there’s plenty of action and comedy to keep most people happy, I think. Plus some really, quite nicely surreal sequences... including a unicorn which keeps popping up during a certain period of the movie. There are also some nice nods to things like, in one fight scene there’s a... wait. I want to say blink and you’ll miss it but it’s on the soundtrack so... I dunno, what’s the equivalent of blinking your ears? Yeah, that. Anyway, don’t blink your ears or you’ll miss a nice sound effect during one of the fights where, for a second, maybe two, you get to hear the old ‘bionic’ sound effect from The Six Million Dollar Man again.

There’s also what I think is a huge in-joke for somebody because the film that Jody is directing (and it even has the same tag line as the real one), is Metalstorm. Does anyone remember that? During the 1980s 3D movie phase, hot on the heels of Spacehunter - Adventures In The Forbidden Zone, they had Metalstorm - The Destruction of Jared-Syn (I even have the soundtrack on CD to prove it exists... not sure the subtitle was included in the marketing of the film here in the UK). Goodness knows why they picked on that title... a famous movie... as the title of the film within a film for this one but, maybe one of the key staff worked on that film back in the day?  

Now, there are some bad things in terms of the writing, specifically the story and its twists. There’s absolutely nothing in here you won’t see coming... no surprises at all. Well, okay, maybe the unicorn but, not much else and the unicorn isn’t really a story point (although it’s definitely one of the reasons why the film ‘had me’). So nothing too clever in the story department for sure but, it certainly makes up for it in the dialogue and other various flourishes. So, the film entertained me and, yeah, I guess that’s the main purpose of this one (except maybe to make a very convincing case, if one were needed, that stunt people should get a category at the Oscars). The Fall Guy is an immensely entertaining film and I’ll definitely be picking this one up on Blu Ray to show my folks when it gets a release... a nice little movie, on a blockbuster budget which certainly shows where that money all went.

Sunday 5 May 2024

Love Lies Bleeding








The Joy Of Flex

Love Lies Bleeding
Directed by Rose Glass
UK/USA 2024
A24


Well Love Lies Bleeding is a very interesting film, to say the least. Lou, played by Kristen Stewart, manages a gym and has a none too great existence... but it’s love at first sight when Jackie, played by Katy O'Brian, comes to pump up her body in preparation for a body building competition to be held in Vegas. After some steroid injecting foreplay, the two become involved but, when Lou’s sister gets badly beaten by her husband (again), something snaps in Jackie’s brain and she tries to put things right in her own way. And did I mention the owner of both that gym and the gun club where Jackie is currently working as a waitress is also the long standing local villain, who also happens to be Lou’s father... played to the hilt by Ed Harris?

If this sounds like a classic set up for a 1940s/50s film noir then, bingo but, here’s the thing, the film is set in the late 1980s (Die Hard is mentioned as being a popular, recent film) and this has a similar feel to one of those retro-noir movies made in the 1980s for sure. But, the other thing about this movie is... it’s the second feature by writer/director Rose Glass, who had a big hit with her wonderful movie Saint Maud a couple of years ago (reviewed by me here). And this next piece of cinematic artistry is a worthy successor to that debut, although it’s in no way aligned with it tonally and this is a much more playful movie, shot through with a much more blatant sense of black humour.

The film looks beautiful, with a rich colour palette and some beautiful camera angles. Glass is not afraid to adopt a birds eye view shot and then hold it for a period of time when she feels it’s appropriate too... which reminded me of certain shots in Hitchcock’s oeuvre from time to time.

It also has a few surprises up its sleeves too with the director bringing in a couple of well placed, healthy doses of cinematic surrealism to throw into the mix, to wrong foot and certainly surprise the audience from time to time. There’s a wonderful moment during the body building contest when Stewart, who isn’t even in the same city, appears a couple of times and makes a truly spectacular entrance in one scene (in a way that totally is what using CGI in cinema should be about). Sometimes these dalliances with surreal occurrences can be excused as hallucinogenic states creeping up on a character due to persistent steroid abuse and at other times... well, there’s a wonderful denouement with Ed Harris which, admittedly goes the way you think it will in terms of deus ex machina outcomes but, spectacularly not in a way many people would see coming. Like the final shot of Saint Maud, this forces the audience to consider the duality of what they are seeing and to find their own interpretation of just what is going on by this point. Which is a nice gift to the viewer and something you can take away with you after the film is done.

Added to all this we have a fetishistic devotion to the way muscles can be pumped up on a body with a truly heightened sense of sound design and which, itself, is a constant foreshadowing for the scene I mentioned with Ed Harris in the previous paragraph. It’s another interesting element of the film that seems almost a throwback to a couple of decades earlier, when Darren Aronofsky was using fast cut montages with enhanced sound design in films like Pi and Requiem For A Dream.

And... while we’re on the subject of Aranofsky, this film is also scored by the composer for those films, Clint Mansell. And it’s got a very distinctive feel to it... sounding a lot more like his early works in terms of commenting on the atmosphere of a scene in a more vibrant way than some of his later stuff. I think he’s consciously, perhaps, trying to sound like something earlier for the sake of the time period of the film but one scene where I was really surprised was in the first sex scene between Kristen Stewart and Katy O'Brian, where Mansell’s score almost goes into full on 1980s porn soundtrack mode... at least that’s the way it seemed to me. It was a bit ‘off putting’ at first but when I figured out the way it fits in with the aesthetic of the piece, I kinda got into it.

And what more is there to say. Love Lies Bleeding, the second feature length film from Rose Glass, is something which at first feels very familiar but then evolves into something much more challenging to what your expectations might be, I’m pleased to say. I was really drawn into the quirkiness of the project and coupled with doses of sometimes uncomfortable, lethal paranoia, I really had a good time with this movie. I suspect it will totally divide audiences straight down the middle but, that’s okay... that just means a film has a powerful voice and falls closer to being an auteur piece than most. I’m glad that this kind of refreshing, cinematic surprise is still able to get a mainstream release these days and, yeah, I hope it does really well.

Tuesday 30 April 2024

The Woman In Green








Mesmerising Rhythm

The Woman In Green
Directed by Roy William Neill
USA 1945
Universal Blu Ray Zone B

Although there are slight inspirational shades of both Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Final Solution and The Adventure Of The Empty House present in this, The Woman In Green is a mostly original screenplay, being the 11th in the series of Sherlock Holmes films to star Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. Mary Gordon once more returns to the series as housekeeper Mrs. Hall but, alas, Dennis Hoey was shooting another movie so his wonderful turn as Lestrade is absent. He would only appear once more in the series.

Like the previous Holmes adventure, The House Of Fear (reviewed by me here), this one starts off with a voice over narrative coupled with the background of the story, which turns out to be someone calling on Holmes to tell him what’s been going on and, in this case, it’s Matthew Boulton as Inspector Gregson. Also on hand are returning actors from previous roles in the series, once again taking on characters they’ve not played before, primarily Henry Daniell playing the third and final incarnation of Professor Moriarty in this one and Hillary Brooke as his ‘henchwoman’ and expert hypnotist Lydia Marlow.

And it’s an interesting one, starting off with the murder of four women around London, their corpses mutilated by having their right forefinger sliced off surgically. It turns out this is a plot that Moriarty is using to convince hypnotised, wealthy aristocrats that they have murdered said woman in order to relieve them of large sums of hush money. The narrative also includes a hypno assassin who tries to murder Holmes, although he escapes the sniper’s bullet due to a ruse with a plaster bust and its silhouette through the window shade... and a nice, comical scene where Watson is hypnotised as a demonstration of the powers of the art of mesmerism. Then there’s a very nice scene where Holmes deduces a lot of the intent of a visitor to his offices by observing her from the window of his home in 221B Baker Street.

And talking of his Baker Street address, producer/director Neill has again used verticals to split the screen in places and so the prominent use of the column in Holmes’ flat is once more brought into play (it was kind of tucked away out of shot again in the previous film but once more it’s become a feature here). He also does some nice partitioning by a set of checkered windows later in the film.  

There are some items of note here which I will point out now...

For starters, Holmes receives one of his clients in his dressing gown, which of course the character was known for but I think, if memory serves, this was the first time in this film series that he wears this (please mention in the comments here if I’ve got that wrong). Another first and, as it happens, final thing is the mention of Holmes’ brother Mycroft. This is the only time in this particular film series that his name comes up.

One other item of interest is a bizarre shot where Holmes is letting himself be hypnotised by the titular character (I’ll get to her in just a moment). There’s a curious double reflection of her but not Holmes in a bowl of water she is using for this which really doesn’t ring true. Something seems off kilter about it... of course, this uncanny feeling is obliterated when they start superimposing the faces of both Hillary Brooke and Basil Rathbone in the bowl but, yeah, the first reflection shot in this sequence looks totally bizarre.

The film also had a couple of issues in that the script was altered due to the Breen Office at the time, in a couple of places, one of which is quite sinister. You’ll notice in the scene that introduces the man actually carrying out the murders and doing the finger cutting that he is playing with a doll of a child. In the proposed version of the script, the victims being killed and mutilated were actually very young girls but, yeah, the censors were having none of it.

And one last thing... The Woman In Green herself. Well, certainly in the shoddy, colourised version from later years, Brooke is wearing green to just make her match the title but, of course, in the original black and white version as is being reviewed here, there’s absolutely no mention of her character wearing green throughout the whole movie. In fact, at one point Holmes even mentions she’s wearing purple so, yeah. it seems perhaps even more of a mystery than the crimes being committed in the film itself, as to why this movie comes by that title. Either way though, despite Moriarty falling to his death for the third time in the series, The Woman In Green is another solid entry and a joy to watch, as they all are to be honest. Three more now to revisit.

Monday 29 April 2024

The Mexican Masked Wrestler And Monster Filmography

 











Luchadorian Gray

The Mexican
Masked Wrestler &
Monster Filmography

by Robert Michael “Bobb” Cotter
McFarlane Press
ISBN: 9780786441044


Just a very quick ‘shout out while I’m passing’ review of Robert Michael ‘Bobb’ Cotter’s refreshingly entertaining book The Mexican Masked Wrestler And Monster Filmography. This book is not, as the writer rightly states in his introductory paragraph, an exhaustive tome covering absolutely everything in that, admittedly, very wide category but, it has to be said, it covers all the important ones (at least that’s how it seems to me).

The book is split into themed sections so, rather than just go through each movie one by one, he groups everything into themes. And that’s not as problematic as you may think because, as in the case when two or more wrestlers shared billing and performances in the same movie, at least two alternate looks at the film in question appear in two or more sections, where relevant. So, for instance, when Santo, Blue Demon and Mil Máscaras take on the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle in Misterio en las Bermudas (aka Mystery In The Bermudas 1977), you will find a wealth of information for the film in both the Santo section, the Blue Demon section and, possibly, still more mention in the Mil Máscaras section.

The ten chapters which make up the book are as follows... 1. The Bat Flies South - Early Mexican Fantasy And Horror, 2. Who Was That masked man? - The Spirit Of The Serials, 3. Universal Con Carne - New Lives For The Old Undead, 4. Santo and Son - The Legend of the Silver Masked Man, 5. Devil With A Blue Mask On - The Life And Films Of Blue Demon, 6. Man of a Thousand Masks - The Life and Films of Mil Máscaras, 7. Glorious Luchadoras of Wrestling - The Lives and Films of the Wrestling Women, 8. The Undercard - Second-Banana Masked Men, 9. Vampires Not Named Drácula and Other Assorted Creatures - The Wide, Wide World Of Mexican Monsters and, lastly,  10. Men Can Die But Legends Live Forever - The Legacy Of The Silver-Masked Man.

The book starts off by giving a history of the background to wrestling and monsters in movies. So, coincidentally, Lucha Libre (Free Wrestling) was introduced as a phenomenon in Mexico in the early 1930s and, of course, the Spanish version of Dracula made by Universal simultaneously with their American version in 1931, on the same sets (reviewed by me here) also made a big splash in Mexico. So it wasn’t long before the wrestlers started appearing in films (and movie characters started also appearing in the wrestling ring) and, not too long after that, than they started facing various Universal style monsters and other supernatural villains in their big screen adventures. And also in their comics, it would seem, as there was often a big crossover with characters appearing in wrestling rings, in comics and in the movies.

Each movie covered is a very humorously written explanation of the film and what happens but it also is very illuminating as to various things the casual viewer like myself was unaware of. So I now know about the ‘private detective’ version of Fu Manchu from a series of Mexican movies, for example. I now know male wrestlers are luchadores and female wrestlers are luchadoras. I know which actor from The Aztec Mummy Trilogy was shot by his lover’s estranged husband a year after making the film and, similarly, which actresss’ career was thwarted by her father shooting her boyfriend after discovering they’d had pre-marital sex. It’s all here and written in a breezy but also very respectful manner.

So I was surprised to learn... because I’ve not seen many Mil Máscaras movies... that the origin of that particular character on screen was pretty much cribbed from the Doc Savage novels. And also that the one time the Mexicans made a theatrical serial (as opposed to a feature), it was only shown in serial form when it was distributed in America... in Mexico it was a, presumably cut down, feature length version.

So, yeah, lots new to me here and my one caveat emptor warning on this would be... the book was written around twenty years ago. So every now and again you wil find the author unable to review a film because it’s a ‘lost film’ or a ‘lost cut’. Well, in the two decades since this was written, a lot of headway must have been made because, I certainly have a few of these ‘lost prints’ as bootlegs and I even have a nice, officially released Blu Ray of at least one of them.

But don’t let this detract you because, for sure, if you are a beginner in the genre or, like me, just want to dip your toes in every now and again, you wil certainly find The Mexican Masked Wrestler And Monster Filmography an invaluable and illuminating treasure trove of information, with a big injection of humour added into the mix too. Definitely a big recommendation from me.

Sunday 28 April 2024

ISS






ISS Side Up

I.S.S
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite
USA 2023 (2024 release)
Universal
UK Theatrical Print


ISS is a new sci-fi thriller set aboard the International Space Station of the title. Starting with the tail end of the journey to and, arrival of, a new American researcher to the ISS, the film has only six cast members in its whole running time and is totally set in... and for a couple of sequences, on... the space station of the title (and the shuttle rocket which gets the inhabitants to and from there).

So we have six cast members playing three a piece of both the American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts. There’s Ariana DeBose, Chris Messina and John Gallagher Jr. playing the American crew. And we have Masha Mashkova, Costa Ronin and Pilou Asbæk playing their Russian counterparts. And the two crews seem to get along just fine and friendly (in one case, a little more than friendly, in terms of the captain of the American team and the lady of the Russian crew) until something happens.

So the film has a really strong premise and it’s this... one day not long after her arrival on the ISS, Ariana DeBose’s character spots something which she at first thinks is a volcano erupting on the Earth out of the window. She calls the others to float over to the window with her to look but the light show doesn’t just stop at one ’eruption’ and the crew witness a nuclear war from space. Soon after, the crew realise there is no internet and contact with Earth is lost but, the two commanders of each team get secret communications sent to them independently, saying there is now war between America and Russia and that they have to ‘take control’ of the ISS... by any means necessary.

So that’s the set up and it’s a nicely handled, quite intense and dark piece. As people on each side question their superiors’ orders while certain other members of... well... one team especially, tries to eliminate the other team as quick as he can. Like a lot of movies set in isolated locations where the characters are cut off from any kind of real communication with the outside world, there’s a lot of paranoia in the film and, even with such clearly established sides, switching allegiances to some extent... one of the US crew is clearly affected mentally by the objective of his new mission priority and this manifests in an aggressive and dangerous way (aka, he’s a psycho ready to kill American and Russian alike to reach his goal).

Now there’s good and bad with the film. Something I can tell you is it’s a good, more than competently made movie with an almost unbearable amount of suspense in some sequences. It also has good special effects such as the really well done weightlessness of the crew for most of the scenes (though obviously not as good as Jane Fonda’s anti-gravity striptease at the start of Barbarella, for obvious reasons) and nice moments such as, when wounds are inflicted, floating blood droplets in the air.

The cast of six are all great in this. Not one of them puts a foot wrong in this piece and the ‘villains’ are people you will be happy to see die with everyone having good, on screen chemistry. Ditto on the direction and editing. Gabriela Cowperthwaite turns in a nice looking film which has a certain flair and I imagine, giving the weightlessness and other difficulties of shooting stories set in space, this must have been a hard thing to capture... she acquits herself brilliantly.

And the musical score too, by Anne Nikitin, really adds tension to the piece. I would love to listen to this as a stand alone experience but, alas, at time of writing this review there is no proper CD release (just a stupid download). Granted, it’s maybe mixed in too powerfully in a couple of the early scenes but it certainly injects an extra layer of tension throughout the film and I will have to watch out... or listen out, at least... for this lady on future movies.

Okay... it’s a good film, certainly but... not a great film, alas. I’ve been avoiding the floating elephant in the room thus far and it’s this, I think. I'm pretty sure it’s a writing problem. We have such a strong set up and the movie plays out exactly as you might think such a set up would play out but... does nothing more. There’s no last act element to elevate the emotional stakes any higher than they are at the start of the story and, although there is a certain, open ended resolution to the thing (which has, perhaps, shades of other movies where isolated characters are slowly being whittled down), there’s no real feeling of progression to any of the characters or situations by the end of the movie and so it just feels, I dunno, a bit anticlimactic.

But that’s the only problem I had with it and, like I said, ISS is certainly an entertaining movie with harrowing suspense and tension in some scenes and, definitely some clearly defined antagonists on both crews of the station so, if those are the kind of movies you like, you should still have a pretty good time with this one. Just don’t expect too much from the ending, is my main warning on this one.

Tuesday 23 April 2024

Heroes Of The East










Hitty Woman

Heroes Of The East
aka Zhong hua zhang fu
Hong Kong 1978
Directed by Chia-Liang Liu
Shaw Brothers/Celestial Pictures
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B


Okay, so the eleventh movie presented in Arrow’s Blu Ray ShawScope Vol 1 collection is Heroes Of The East and, it’s another entertaining yarn. That being said, I’m amazed that Shaw Brothers got away with releasing this one after the racist tone of the movie... I was going to say subtext but it’s way less subtle than that.

Okay, so it’s one of those films which introduces characters with credits from the moment they enter the story. I think I’ve only ever seen this practice done on Shaw Brothers movies and there are a lot in this box set which do this... once the titles are finished, they still just keep coming and coming until every new character has turned up throughout the course of the picture.

The film stars a young Gordon Liu as Ho Tao but, it’s a younger version of the actor in a way I’ve never seen him before... with a full head of almost Beatles-style mop top hair. After some shenanigans where he pretends to get ill rather than go through with an arranged marriage to a childhood companion, he drops all pretence of illness when he discovers she’s not the ugly battle axe he was expecting to have to marry. Far from it and, in the first of many credits in the movie which introduce actors and actresses with their specialist martial arts skills status, she is billed here as Japanese Seikendo Expert - Yuka Mizuno (who is here playing said new wife Yumiko).

Yup, it’s a ‘Chinese man marrying a Japanese woman‘ battle of the sexes comedy, for a while, with the extremely proficient new lady of the house pitching her belief in her own, ‘failing in the face of her husbands more elegant Chinese kung fu styles’ Japanese techniques, in which the battle is initially raised. So, yeah, it's a case of marital arts to martial arts, I guess.

However, it doesn’t take long to figure out for even the most IQ light viewer (so that’d be me then), it’s really about pushing the agenda that Chinese martial arts are far superior to Japanese brands and styles. This gets further pronounced in their domestic disputes to the point when, unable to take her techniques’ failures any more, she high tails it back to Japan.

So Ho sends her a letter challenging her to use her seven different kung fu styles against his in a battle to settle the dispute once and for all. However, her martial arts instructor (who also wants her for himself), shows his grandmaster the letter and seven of the masters in their special techniques (including him), plus the grandmaster as an observer, go to China to accept the challenge in her place, in seven duels.

From here on in, the film becomes a series of seven long fight scenes which, yeah, is all very watchable, fast paced and I dread to think how many times these various actors got hurt doing these sequences. So there are seven different skills and styles poor Ho has to go against... Swords, Karate (which Ho manages to defeat by somehow learning Drunken Kung Fu overnight), Nunchucks, Spears  (no match for Ho’s pole fighting technique), Sai (which is, yeah, the plural of Sai, as it turns out), a huge Judo guy who is defeated by Ho smearing his body with oil and, eventually, the Ninjitsu style as Yumilo’s affronted ex-master uses the most sneaky and deviously underhanded techniques to win his confrontation... losing out to the same techniques pitched against him.

So, yeah, there’s a sense of honour among the Japanese characters and they’re not presented as total idiots but, it’s very much, despite Ho’s attempt at a speech to help the Japanese regain face at the end, a movie saying ‘Chinese are better than Japanese’, live with it. So I’m surprised I’ve not been aware of any backlash against the film, which I’m sure it must have had.

It’s nicely put together too and the fight choreography is never boring. Indeed, rather than remain static and follow the action from afar, the director gets the camera right in with the actors, using camera motion to follow the fights around with a certain dynamism and kinetic appeal which, due to some good editing and clarity of where you are in a fight at any time, never gets at all confusing.

There’s some nice little moments in the fighting as well... such as the sense of honour of the characters. For instance, when Ho is using some kind of big choppy blades against his opponents sai, he disarms one sai from the other but then presents it back to him. The Japanese guy promptly sheaths it as it would be dishonourable to carry on using the weapon as it’s already been disarmed. In response, Ho beds one of his own weapons in a wooden support so they can carry on meeting each other on equal terms.

There are also some other things which add to the entertainment value... such as when the Ninja guy uses what he calls his Japanese Crab Fist technique, which really does have him energetically scuttling sideways here and there in stark resemblance to its crustacean origins. If that sounds a little silly... I can assure you it looks way more hilarious and ridiculous than it sounds and, I was almost sorry when Ho used his special Chinese Crane Fist technique to put a stop to his opponents sideways stratagems.

So yeah, Heroes Of The East is a bit of an unusual movie, starting off as a kind of Chinese/Japanese version of a Rock Hudson/Doris Day kind of comedy (with lethal weapons) but then turning into something far more serious, with the honour of Chinese martial arts resting on the energy and enthusiasm of the husband as he tries to somehow win back his wife by, I don’t know, reiterating in a more grander, large scale way what he tried to demonstrate to her in the first place. It’s a freeze frame ending so, yeah, we don’t know if this did the trick or not but, certainly that wouldn’t want to be a conversation I’d like to go back to if I was the male in this particular relationship.

And that’s me done on this one, I think. Despite its racist leanings I found the film to be thoroughly entertaining and didn’t mind the lopsided nature of the story as the comedy turned into something more serious and kinetic. Another good one in this set from Arrow.

Monday 22 April 2024

Les Petits Meurtres D’Agatha Christie












French Twist

Les Petits Meurtres
D’Agatha Christie

aka The Little Murders
Of Agatha Christie

aka Agatha Christie’s
Criminal Games

plus Agatha Christie
Family Murder Party

France 2006, 2009-2023
Various company’s DVDs

 
Les Petits Meurtres D’Agatha Christie is one of the best TV shows I’ve seen in quite a while but it’s also absolutely frustrating and maddening to actually acquire all the episodes to watch. This is because one company has put certain episodes out while another has put certain other episodes out and, in terms of the running order, especially from what I will call ‘Season 1’ (it gets complicated, as I’ll elabourate in a minute), it’s like each company just divided the episodes, threw them all in the air and then just put them on their respective discs in a random order completely unlike the actual order you’re supposed to watch them in. So if you do as I did and spend a year and a half trying to put all the episodes together, you’ll need to refer to the IMDB for the correct order to watch these in as, yes, there is character development and referrals back to events in other episodes. Of course, it almost goes without saying that the two companies use different sets of titles for the episodes... sometimes French, sometimes English and, sometimes their own translations based on the Agatha Christie story the episode is based on rather than the actual episode title. Then, of course, running in a totally random order on the discs.

So yeah, it’s not been easy and if these weren’t all a series of gifts for my mum, I might have given up but... between the two companies, there are eight sets of discs which do, I assure you, make up all the episodes. At around £30 to £40 a pop from the US, which is the only country so far these have been released with English subtitles, as far as I can make out. Some of which are no longer in print, so you may have to try and Ebay one or two. All I can say is... they’re worth it but, even to try and explain the way the seasons are split up is hard. As one season can run for many years... each episode is a 90 minute feature length story which, by the looks of it, only had about five episodes air in France each year, sort of like TV specials. They are obviously very popular over there... and rightly so.

So for the sake of convenience I’m going to refer to the shows as follows:

Petits Meurtres En Famille aka Agatha Christies Murder Party is a four episode, single story introduction to two characters, set in the 1930s.

These two characters continue in Les Petits Meeurtres D’Agatha Christie (although they shouldn’t, I’ll get to that in a little while) for 11 feature length episodes, which I’ll call Season 1. This is set in the late 1930s.

Season 2 of Les Petits Meeurtres D’Agatha Christie is also known as Agatha Christie’s Criminal Games in the US (though not on the actual prints) and comprises 27 episodes following different set of three characters... except, if you want to see the first episode of this season which introduces these characters, you’ll have to look in one of the ‘Season 1’ sets entitled The Little Murders of Agatha Christie. Which is nuts. This is set between the mid 1950s and early 1960s and the Criminal Games covers present this ‘season’ as, well, four seasons.

Season 3 is better known in the US as Agatha Christie’s Criminal Games - The 1970s. It features another grouping of three characters and is set in, well, like what it says on the title. I think these all take place between 1971 and 1972.

Now the concept of the series is to take various Agatha Christie novels and short stories as the basis, but to change them up with a new bunch of regular characters, who all work in a French police station, in different decades. The stories are used as a basic starting point (in all but a few) and locations, professions, characters and everything else are given a different spin. And the strength of the show lies in the fact that, each set of main protagionists are a delight and there’s a very large streak of humour running through every episode (often bordering on farce).

Okay, with me so far?

Right, Petits Meurtres En Famille (aka Agatha Christie Family Murder Party) introduces us to Chief inspector Larosière, played by Antoin Duléry and his young assistant Lampion, played by Marius Colucci. It took me a little while to warm to these two because I’d watched all the episodes of the second series first (barring the first one, see above) before realising that these were an earlier iteration of said show. And I can tell you, if I’d seen this multi-part adaptation of ‘Hercule Poirot's Christmas’ first then I wouldn’t have watched anymore after that. It’s way too long at what amounts to around 6 hours to tell the one story. But I was surprised because, I knew there was another series featuring these two characters and they actually stick to the ending of the original here (no spoilers but, if you know the ending of that one, well... Larosière is the character who is standing in for Poirot... although bearing no resemblance to him, of course).

Which puzzled me because, continuity fails right away when we’re into the first season of Les Petits Meurtres D’Agatha Christie because, bearing in mind how the previous tale ended, it’s just been completely forgotten about and it’s Larosière and Lampion investigating other crimes together again after these events. So, yeah, they just decided to forget about the intro series and move on as if nothing had happened. And it’s pretty good, after the sheer brilliance of what I am calling Season 2, I found I warmed to these two predecessor characters pretty quickly and looked forward to seeing their various quirks and methodology tackling the basic premise of the stories in new ways.

And then, comes Season 2. Here we have the no nonsense but very clever Inspector Swan Laurence, played by the brilliant Samuel Labarthe. We have his love/hate relationship with the local newspaper reporter who is often on the scene of the crime before he is, the equally outstanding Blandine Bellavoir as Alice Avril. And, finally, with a role that keeps growing and growing, we have Elodie Frenck as Swan’s admiring and completely ditzy blonde secretary Marlene... who also provides a great deal of the comic relief in certain scenes. She even is featured as one of the main characters of the title sequence after a few episodes, as she becomes more popular in the show. These episodes are absolutely top notch and each of the three leads get to play a dual role at least once over the course of the show, to showcase their enormous acting talents even more.

And, like in the third season, there are even supernatural elements to the occasional story or two, with the odd ghost from the characters’ pasts appearing every now and then. Indeed, one lady coroner who Swan is infatuated with, who dies in a plane crash at the start of an episode, even comes back from the dead as a spirit to point him in the right direction in an investigation in a later episode. This is something that is carried over memorably in the third season, where one of the characters gets some extra assistance (and irritation) from her long dead mum when the episode includes the investigation of a psychic. The chemistry between the three leads in this second season (and indeed the third) is so well written and performed that the mystery aspect of the show almost plays second fiddle. It’s these characters you want to return to, time after time. And the last episode of this season, which involves Swan, Marlene and associated regular characters hiding Alice Avril away as they try to find the culprit behind a murder she is accused of, even features Antoin Duléry as a relation of the original Larosière. Not only that, the last episode of this season, which ties things up very nicely in terms of the three regular characters, is an out and out musical, with all of the many characters we’ve come to know and love bursting out into song as the episode continues.

Lastly, we have the short Season 3, comprising just ten feature length episodes and running up to the end of last year. This one features the brilliant Emilie Gavois-Khan as Inspector Annie Greco, Arthur Dupont as the tearaway 70s sexist sidekick with anger issues called Beretta... and Chloé Cahudoye as consulting psychologist Rose Bellecour, recruited by Annie after her involvement with the mystery in the first episode. And these are all pretty great too... it has to be said. With the wah wah music and 1970s attitudes used as part of the comedy, in much the same way they were in the TV show Life On Mars. Now, a few episodes in Season 2 were only ‘inspired by the works of Agatha Christie’ because they were running out of plots and usage rights (I’m guesssing) but, in the third season, only the first couple of episodes are actually based on Christie works. The quality doesn’t drop though and... I wish they’d decided to keep the show going, although they had to shoot these ones through Covid so, yeah, as far as I can find out, there will be no more decades forthcoming (if you fdiscover any different then please let me know).

Another star of the show is the wonderful music and opening titles, which also features animated cardboard cutouts (probably computer generated) of the main characters, pertinent to that series, running around. It’s good stuff and I shall miss these tunes, titles and the wonderful actors and actresses who populate these stories. But at least, in the pursuit to find my mum something to do with Agatha Christie that she hadn’t already seen, I managed to get to see all of them over the last year and a quarter. And she absolutely loved these too... as did my dad. So these were well loved communal evenings watching the odd episode of this completely likeable and entertaining (not to mention extremely funny) French TV mystery series. And I shall definitely be looking out for some of these actors and actresses for years to come. Maybe skip the Petits Meurtres En Famille four parter but, if you watch the others, I’m sure you’ll have a good time with Les Petits Meurtres D’Agatha Christie, for sure.